And Sde Eliyahu Ceased From Its Raging

Yonatan Bassi has spent his whole life at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, but the former Disengagement Authority head will soon be moving. He couldn't take the expressions of hatred in his own home.

After Passover, Yonatan Bassi will uproot himself from his kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, and move to a neighboring kibbutz in the Beit She'an Valley. Alongside the distress and sorrow over leaving the home where he was born and where he spent most of his life, this dramatic move is also a source of considerable relief. In the past two years, Bassi, as head of the Sela disengagement administration, seemingly became the target of the powerful emotions of the settlers, who saw him as the person responsible for uprooting them from their homes. Religious Zionism's extended family accused Bassi of the greatest sin of all - disloyalty - and he became a pariah. Nevertheless, he understood the bitterness in their hearts, never trying to retaliate for their personal attacks and even refraining from criticizing the Gush Katif evacuees who did not cooperate with him. However, what hurt him most were the expressions of hatred in his own home - in the kibbutz dining hall, its synagogue, even along its garden paths.

In a move whose dramatic character cannot be underestimated, he has decided to leave the kibbutz. Many people consider his situation an illustration of measure for measure: Bassi is receiving divine retribution for banishing the Gush Katif settlers from their homes and will live in Ma'aleh Gilboa in a caravilla, the same kind of glorified mobile homes the evacuees live in.

This week he decided to end his silence in order to clarify that he has not been banished from Sde Eliyahu. Last week, he says, an old friend stopped him after prayer services in the kibbutz synagogue, begging him, "Do something so people will stop saying Sde Eliyahu banished you."

"I've dedicated my life to the kibbutz," he points out, "and it's important to me that my decision to leave does not adversely affect people there." He notes that it is only because of a handful of kibbutzniks that he is leaving: "Were I living somewhere else, I wouldn't feel this way. But, in a kibbutz, you can't look the other way if people boycott you."

I expected to meet someone who was suffering or who felt defeated. However, with his vibrant, liberated laughter, Bassi gives the impression that a large weight has been lifted from his heart. There is no bitterness in his voice or manner. Ten months ago, after he and the evacuees completed the plans for permanent settlements, he returned the helm to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Debby Rosen, Gush Katif's spokesperson during the disengagement, notes that today other voices are being heard among the evacuees and that quite a number of them regret his departure and are grateful to him. Bassi says that delegations of evacuees from Ganei Tal. Atzmona and Netzarim seek his counsel. "I have become their best friend," he observes.

He is not consumed by feelings of regret or guilt because of his participation in the disengagement. "I think it is a good thing that someone from the religious rural community filled that position," he observes. "In a short period, a joint program was created with the evacuees based on an understanding of what a religious community is all about."

Bassi describes himself as a public servant recruited by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill a national mission, and he believes he did the best he could under the circumstances, which were not easy: "What can you say when Ariel Sharon sits before you, telling you that Israelis will soon be undergoing one of the most painful experiences in the nation's history and that you are the person who must help these people rebuild their lives and embark on a new path. How can you refuse?"

Was the personal price Bassi paid worth it? In response, he quotes Rachel Katznelson-Shazar, wife of Israel's third president, Zalman Shazar, who was an intellectual and a prominent Zionist: "You feel free and useless until you are recruited and you forfeit your liberty."

However, Bassi had not expected to forfeit his home. He acknowledges that only 10 percent of Sde Eliyahu's members blacklisted him, but observes that "most people don't understand what life on a kibbutz is like. Anywhere else, I could handle 10 percent being against me. I wouldn't mind being cantor in the synagogue and having 10 people walk out on me. Nor did the anonymous letters in my mailbox or the 'Jews don't banish Jews' posters plastered on my car bother me. The culprits could have been visitors to the kibbutz.

"The boycotting, however, did bother me. So did the fact that people refused to have any sort of dialogue with me. I'm talking about people who openly express their extreme displeasure with what you're doing for the kibbutz, and that makes your life unbearable. In the kibbutz dining hall, I stand holding my tray and I have no place to sit. At Sde Eliyahu we eat all three of our daily meals there. Well, I cannot sit at this table because, if I do, that person will get up, and I cannot sit at that table, because someone else will get up, and so forth. I cannot say anything at our Saturday night general membership meetings because, if I do, people will walk out."

Friends relate how doors have been slammed in his face, how people publicly avoid even walking alongside him and how worshipers theatrically walk out when Bassi enters the kibbutz synagogue.

But that is only part of the story. People call him, gingerly asking how he is feeling, he tells me. Apparently, some Web sites have announced that he has cancer. "This simplistic method of seeking 'measure for measure' is, of course, a superficial approach to the Torah's concept of reward and punishment."

Ten months ago, feeling he could not take it anymore, he went to the kibbutz secretariat and informed its members that he intended leaving. He spoke of a six-month trial period in which he would see whether the group opposing him became more moderate following his departure from the disengagement administration: "I thought this would cool them off, but I was wrong."

In December, he announced he was leaving. Many of Sde Eliyahu's members were shocked.